When the Lady Usher of the Black Rod has the door of the Commons slammed in her face this week, it will mark a significant day in the 662-year history of the job. Sarah Clarke, the current holder of the House of Lords role, will begin the ceremonial proceedings at Tuesday’s state opening of parliament, at which Charles III will make his first king’s speech, and kick off a crucial legislative period.
Given that the parliamentary session could be curtailed at any point by Rishi Sunak calling a general election, businesses and lobbyists will be pushing hard to get long-trailed legislation over the line. Among a slate of about 25 bills, the king could announce the government’s intention to legislate in a clutch of areas that are important for businesses, including housing, energy infrastructure, pensions reform, driverless cars and media regulation.
Beyond business, the legislation to create an independent regulator for football clubs and their ownership is expected, as are rules to ban “zombie-style” knives and machetes, and toughened laws on crime and prison sentences.
Business leaders are keen to see the speech used to rally political willpower behind supporting industry – not least because the chancellor’s autumn statement, due on 22 November, is not expected to contain big giveaways to companies. The British Chambers of Commerce has called for a skills bill, legislation to aid international trade digitally, support for small businesses to adopt technology, and a planning bill that “gives more attention to business’ needs”.
Perhaps chief among businesses’ recent concerns has been artificial intelligence, an issue the king himself addressing at last week’s AI safety summit. His speech on Tuesday may hint at amendments to the data bill, but it is probably too early for a standalone AI bill. One hot tech area that is likely to be covered is driverless cars. A transport bill was announced in last year’s queen’s speech, but has yet to materialise.
The legislation will enshrine a new kind of road user, set out how liability for accidents is apportioned when there isn’t a person at the wheel, and give powers to issue fines. Gavin Jackson, chief executive at Oxa, one of the British companies working on driverless software, said the UK had not changed its road laws to this extent since the 1930s, and a bill would allow a domestic industry to grow.
He added: “A legal framework such as this would allow us to prove the integrity of our software systems, including how safe, ethical and explainable our AI decision-making is – something we think is vital for all self-driving technology companies.”
Hot on the heels of the Energy Act passed last month, an energy infrastructure bill has been touted, designed to speed up connections to the electricity grid and decarbonise power generation. “It may also include legislation that will commit the government to future oil and gas licensing, in a direct political challenge to Labour,” said Nikki da Costa of political consultancy Flint Global.
In parliament, a cross-party group of MPs have been pushing for reforms to the accounting industry to prevent a repeat of incidents like the catastrophic demise of outsourcer Carillion in 2018. They may be disappointed: the much-delayed reforms, committed to earlier this year, could well slip beyond the election.
But several bills held over from last session are inching towards law, including a ban on UK public bodies imposing their own boycotts on foreign countries, and the renters reform bill, which would outlaw no-fault evictions. Landlords will also be watching out for mooted further legislation aimed at reworking the leasehold system to give tenants more control.
Legislation tightening regulation on everything from vaping to video-on-demand platforms could also feature in the speech. A more left-field law, to regulate and license pedicabs – stemming from London MP Nickie Aiken’s private member’s bill – could also be announced in an attempt to land votes in the capital.
Shevaun Haviland, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “The king’s speech should be used by the government as a powerful springboard to encourage more business investment.”